Some twenty-five years ago I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.
What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.
When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.
Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuver room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.
My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about. One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.
As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.
Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”? he proposed to surprised looks around the table;“We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.
After a few moments and some surprised looks, Barb asked “Do you think anybody would mind?”
Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that simple.
The Sunday evening of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for authentic manger atmosphere, but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any of our frequently forgetful young actors.
Our Mary needed no such assistance.
Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly moving moment I remember vividly, looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger. Holy Communion Church had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.
By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.
Sheri’s family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.
‘And a little child shall lead them’.